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Love and compassion in hard places

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Phil Wilkerson served as Tearfund Australia’s International Program Team Director from July 2010 to June 2022.

Part of Tearfund’s calling is to be faithful to our partners in those places where success is difficult and the best of efforts can be hampered by powerful global factors, reflects Phil Wilkerson, who after 12 years recently concluded his time as Tearfund’s International Program Director.

Thirty years ago, towards the end of 1992, Tearfund Australia received a grant from the Australian Government to assist in the resettlement of people who wanted to return to their traditional homelands along the Juba River in southern Somalia. The communities had been displaced by continued clan fighting, with many people surviving on mangoes that had fallen from the trees along the river bank. Tearfund partnered with a Christian organisation to provide immediate assistance through agricultural inputs and the cleaning of wells that had come into disrepair during the conflict. I visited the town of Jilib and the Juba Valley in 1993 and reflected:

…many people have already benefited from the seeds they planted upon their return to their homes. While conflict still exists with UN and American soldiers in Mogadishu, the markets here are colourfully displaying beans, tomatoes, melons and corn. Food is again available in the marketplace and local farmers in the Juba Valley are proudly exhibiting their produce.

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A camp for internally displaced people in Jilib, Somalia, 1993.
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Food stalls in Jilib.

There was hope for a time, but the fighting and food shortages quickly returned and I wondered whether all the work had resulted in any lasting benefit.

Close to 20 years ago, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami devastated coastal populations around the Indian Ocean. Somalia, 4,500 km from the epicentre, also suffered, with 300 people losing their lives and around 50,000 being displaced from the coast. Tearfund responded again with humanitarian assistance for the fishing communities on islands off the coast of southern Somalia that had been devastated by the tsunami.

Ten years ago I sat with a young woman who was cradling twin babies in her arms. She had just walked for five days from her home village in Somalia to a United Nations displaced people’s camp that was closer to the Kenyan border. Famine had been declared in two regions of south central Somalia.

We sat and talked and I learned that her home village was a town I had visited in 1993. Armed conflict, violence and drought had been an unwanted companion throughout her entire life. Again, I questioned how the work we were supporting could be considered successful when it was constantly being disrupted and overwhelmed by powerful political and environmental factors.

I believe Tearfund is called to be faithful in its support, and at times that will mean turning the definition of success upside down. It means standing in solidarity with partners during the tough times in those very hard places ...

Phil Wilkinson

Nine years ago, Tearfund began supporting Medair’s work in Somalia and we continue to do so today. The project aims to improve the quality of and access to life-saving nutritional and health services. The work engages women in addressing their neo-natal, child, reproductive and mental health needs.

Despite the global assistance Somalia has received over the past 30 years, in 2022 the country is again facing the risk of famine with about 4.9 million people affected by extreme drought conditions, and over 700,000 again being displaced from their homes in search of water, food and pasture. I read today that the region where the woman I met 10 years ago comes from is now one of the worst drought-hit states in Somalia. There is still no access to safe drinking water or sanitation facilities.

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Phil Wilkerson (left) enjoying refreshing coconut milk in the Juba Valley with some local farmers, 1993.
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Hardworking farmers along the Juba River (above and below left).
Juba Valley Somalia

Defining Successful Work

So how does Tearfund Australia define successful work in a country like Somalia? Year after year we only hear about Somalia on our news services when another bomb has exploded in Mogadishu, or the United States has conducted a drone strike against Al Shabab militants, or people are fleeing across the country for safety, or the rains have failed and the population is on the verge of famine. How long does this go on for? Wouldn’t it be better value for money if Tearfund directed the funds entrusted to us by supporters to places where success and impact could be more clearly explained?

I don’t believe so.

I believe Tearfund is called to be faithful in its support, and at times that will mean turning the definition of success upside down. It means standing in solidarity with partners during the tough times in those very hard places, especially where the only life-saving services are being delivered by our partners. It means continuing to fund the sacrificial service of our partners even though their work may be disrupted by conflict and global factors beyond their control. It means praying for the staff of our partner organisations, as often their lives are at risk due to the work they do. And it means being transparent in our communication to supporters, sharing stories about when it has been difficult for our partners to achieve the results and success they so desire.

I am glad that for the past 50 years, Tearfund and our partners have witnessed amazing changes in people’s lives and circumstances. Children’s lives have been saved, families have found new ways of providing both economically and socially for themselves, communities are better prepared for disasters, opportunities exist for people with disabilities, awareness of the importance of mental health is being shared, relationships have been restored, and practical steps are being taken to care for the environment. I am equally glad that Tearfund continues to remain faithful to partners working in the most challenging locations of our globe, like Somalia. For it is in such places, where success is difficult, and violence and poverty overwhelming, that the love and compassion of God should also shine brightly.

I am equally glad that Tearfund continues to remain faithful to partners working in the most challenging locations of our globe ... for it is in such places, where success is difficult, and violence and poverty overwhelming, that the love and compassion of God should also shine brightly.


Phil Wilkerson served as Tearfund Australia’s International Program Team Director from July 2010 to June 2022. He continues to work at Tearfund contributing to both our Enterprise Development Program (now titled forTomorrow), and to the work of the global Tearfund family.

Related projects have received support from the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).